While the effects of outdoor air pollution on lung health are well known, few realise that even indoor air pollution could be causing symptoms of respiratory infections, say pulmonologists.
From dust mites and mould to cleaning supplies and household products that contain dangerous chemicals, there are several air pollutants even within the confines of our own homes that can contribute to poor indoor air quality.
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Dr Nirmala M A, senior specialist, pulmonology and lung transplant, Aster RV Hospital, Bengaluru, says other common sources of indoor air pollution include any construction, industrial work happening in the vicinity of your house and certain mosquito repellents and aerosol sprays that contain harmful chemicals.
“Some people are allergic to certain strong fragrances — certain deodorants and perfumes, fragrant candles, incense sticks, for instance. When you inhale air polluted by these, your nasal and oral mucosa get irritated, leading to sneezing,” she says.
A study titled ‘Indoor Air Quality: Assessment of Dangerous Substances in Incense Products’ found that incense sticks and cones, used indoors, emit worrying levels of dangerous compounds.
Dr V Pratibh Prasad, consultant, clinical and interventional pulmonologist, Yashoda Hospital, Hyderabad, lists indoor smoking as another major contributor to household air pollution.
Symptoms of indoor air pollution
“Indoor air pollution can cause a host of problems — from simple symptoms like burning and redness of the eyes, sneezing, cough, throat irritation and headaches to extremely complicated problems like cardiovascular mortality. Research has shown that indoor air pollution causes death, forms of heart attacks and strokes,” says Dr Prasad.
He adds that indoor air pollution is also one of the biggest risk factors for chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD). “This is especially true of women in their 50s or 60s living in rural Indian pockets. They present to us with symptoms of COPD — severe, progressing breathlessness, wheezing, cough and expectoration (coughing and spitting up). The reason: the use of biomass or solid fuels for cooking purposes. They’re all probably using LPG cylinders right now. However, 20 to 30 years ago, they were constantly exposed to such fuels,” he says.
Dr Prasad is currently treating a 64-year-old woman from Sangareddy city in Telangana who showed up at the hospital with severe breathlessness.
The chief reason for the woman’s COPD diagnosis was exposure to coal or wood as cooking fuel for several years. Dr Prasad says that in this case the damage has already been done.
“Unfortunately, most pulmonary diseases, like COPD for instance, cannot be cured. Only the symptoms can be managed. When she came to us, she was suffering from severe breathlessness. She was unable to even walk without feeling breathless. We’ve started her on inhaler therapy. Hopefully, we will see some improvement in her health. However, I do not expect her to go completely back to normal,” he says.
Long-term effects of indoor air pollution
According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, the long-term effects of indoor air pollution include:
- Respiratory diseases
- Heart disease
“Mortality because of indoor air pollution is more due to an underlying heart condition rather than an underlying lung condition,” says Dr Prasad. “Unfortunately, not a lot of cardiologists ask a patient about their exposure to indoor air pollution. However, research shows that it is a major risk factor alongside obesity, hypertension, smoking, etc.”
Indoor air pollution worsens existing respiratory conditions
“Any kind of infection in a person with a compromised lung will lead to worsening of symptoms, higher hospitalisation and mortality rates. Indoor air pollution can also worsen certain diseases — like asthma and allergic rhinitis — and can increase respiratory tract infections. If you have a pre-existing condition like this, your lungs and airways are already extremely sensitive. Polluted indoor air is rich in both PM10 (particles with a diameter of 10 microns or less) and PM2.5. They can hence lead to further airway inflammation in people with pre-existing conditions,” says Dr Prasad.
Dr Nirmala recommends that those suffering from asthma or any other respiratory illnesses should get their lung function checked out every six months through a pulmonary function test. “In a person with no underlying conditions who still gets exposed to air pollutants, I would suggest undergoing a lung function test once in two years,” Dr Nirmala adds.
- Indoor air pollution can cause eye, nose and throat irritation after short exposure, while prolonged exposure can lead to respiratory, heart diseases and cancer.
- Keep your home smoke- and dust-free and well-ventilated; use chemical-free household products.